Blogs: Black Market Journalism or New News Product?

While reading these three academic articles about the role and evolution of Web logs – more commonly known as blogs – I was struck by how dated they seemed. The oldest article, by Robinson, was published just four years ago, and the other two articles were published in 2008 and 2009.

Yet four years can seem like decades in the world of the Internet and new media. Murley (2009) was the only author to mention Facebook, because it didn’t exist in 2006 and was just taking off in 2008.

Whether reading about blogs as a form of postmodern writing (Robinson, 2006) or as a way to allow new voices to take part in a mediated discussion (Murley, 2009), this all seemed like old news to me. I felt that I was reading about blogs’ past, not how they function now, or how they may function in the future.

And that made me wonder about the relevance of the traditional academic publishing process when compared with the speed at which new media evolves. In the academic milieu, researchers typically measure and analyze data one year, submit their paper or book chapter the next year, and see their work published the following year.

By that time – two or three years after the data were collected and analyzed – the research question or problem may be irrelevant to current new media issues. It may provide insight into the history of new media, but it won’t help us understand new media now or predict its future.

The “j-blog”

Robinson (2006) sets out to analyze the “j-blog” – any blog written by a mainstream journalist. She conducts a textual analysis of a number of j-blogs with three questions in mind:

  1. Do these blogs uphold the standards of traditional journalism?
  2. How are truth, independence, credibility, and authorship established in these blogs?
  3. How do journalists “negotiate and (re)interpret traditional news frames and journalistic authority in the online medium?” (p. 69)

She cites numerous examples of “news repair,” when bloggers or their readers attempt to correct what they perceive as errors in previous blog posts, the mainstream print or broadcast news product, or other blogs.

In addition, she discusses the postmodern nature of blogs. Even journalists who blog may change the original information or opinion they posted in light of other bloggers’ comments or new data, she says.

Robinson concludes that blogs are a new form of journalism, and that they are postmodern, presenting multiple truths and “various interpretations of the day’s news, ‘unfiltered’ and ‘unedited’” (p. 79).

Yet journalists will only go so far, she says. They conduct news repair by criticizing blogs by non-journalists that fail to meet journalistic standards. They let readers change the content of the blog, but then link to other sources that provide different information or opinions, Robinson says.

Blogs’ effect on news coverage

In 2010, it seems safe to say that blogs – whether written by journalists or not – have changed the way mainstream journalism organizations cover the news. These organizations now are forced to cover events that would not have been news or that they would not have been aware of a few years ago.

The recent flap over an African-American Department of Agriculture official who appeared to make racist remarks in excerpts from a videotaped speech at an NAACP banquet is one example of that. The story was picked up by a conservative blogger and quickly spread over the Internet, forcing mainstream news media to cover it.

Disappointingly, these media initially did not fully investigate the story, which led to a lot of embarrassment when an airing of the full video showed the official telling a tale of personal redemption from racism. We will see if this incident gives mainstream media – or bloggers, for that matter – any pause the next time a politically inflammatory story runs wild on the Internet.

I wish I had Robinson’s faith that readers can distinguish between traditional news stories by mainstream media and the opinions and unsupported observations of an independent – or, more often, politically biased – blogger.

Too many otherwise intelligent people appear to believe almost anything they read on the Internet if it comes from a legitimate-looking website or blog. I hope this changes over time, and that readers become at least as skeptical of blog posts as they are of their own government.

Sweetser, et al, (2008) take up this issue of credibility, examining if journalists and public relations practitioners who use blogs think they are credible. They conclude that those who use blogs frequently think blogs are more credible than those who rarely use blogs.

They cite research that shows bloggers find blogs highly credible, while traditional news outlets are only moderately credible. And bloggers think other bloggers’ bias and lack of professional affiliation makes them more credible, not less.

An extension of work

Sweetser, et al, conclude that professional communicators use blogs as an extension of their work. According to their analysis, journalists tend to use blogs interactively, writing blogs and dialoging with their readers.

However, public relations professionals are more likely to monitor blogs about their organization and industry, rather than write their own blogs or actively engage with readers. This may be because media organizations have pushed journalists to blog, while PR professionals have been warned about the dangers of blogs and blogging, Sweetser, et al, say.

As a former journalist and current PR practitioner, this makes sense to me. For a journalist, the back and forth of blogging is not that different from having readers comment online, in letters to the editor, or by phone on a story.

But PR professionals have to be sure that blog posts cannot be used against the organization or company they represent. On the other hand, monitoring blogs that concern their field or industry can provide useful information.

I think PR professionals are becoming less wary of online interaction with customers or the public. The popularity of corporate Facebook pages seems to indicate that, even if the effectiveness of corporations’ use of social media remains questionable.

Murley (2009) gives a brief overview of the development of blogs and their historical, pre-Internet roots. He says their most important contribution to the media landscape “has been their ability to infuse new and different voices into the mediated discussion” (p. 245).

He notes that blog use is different in other countries, with higher percentages of Chinese and Japanese reading blogs compared with residents of the United States.

Blogs: The future or a fad?

Murley also points out the dangers of either miscalculating blogs’ effect and reach or devaluing them as a fad. They may be a fad, in that some other form of Internet communication may take their place, but the personalization, participation, and connection of this kind of communication is not going away.

As I read these three articles, it seemed to me that one issue continues to be hashed out in the blogosphere: the issue of control.

Who has control: the mainstream media, which still generate the vast majority of the news bloggers comment on or add to; the bloggers themselves, some of whom are powerful enough to generate news on their own; or the readers, who ultimately will determine what kind of news they want and who they trust.

Mainstream media appear to be losing control of the news and bloggers seem to be gaining some power, along with readers/consumers of news. This may be good news if you’re a postmodernist who doesn’t like hegemony, but it will be a scarier and more chaotic world if there is no “news authority” to at least provide some guidance about which sources are credible.

References

Murley, B. (2009). Web logs: Democratizing media production. In A.E. Grant & J.S. Wilkinson (Eds.), Understanding media convergence: The state of the field, pp. 234-238. New York: Oxford University Press.

Robinson, S. (2006, January). The mission of the j-blog: Recapturing journalistic authority online. Journalism: Theory, practice, and criticism, 7, 65-83.

Sweetser, K.D., Porter, L.V., Chung, D.S., & Kim, E. (2008, April). Credibility and the use of blogs among professionals in the communication industry. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 85, 169-185.

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